As was reported in Thursday's MDJ, ultra-insiders at the Chamber have been laying the groundwork since at least September for it to take over the county government's three-person Economic Development Department (and its $350,000 annual budget) and then the Cobb County Visitors Bureau, (which receives approximately $1 million per year in hotel/motel tax proceeds).
According to documents obtained by the MDJ via an Open Records request, the scheme was apparently hatched by former Chamber Chair David Connell of Georgia Power, lame duck Chamber CEO Don Beaver and current Chamber Chair Rob Garcia of Bank of North Georgia. The documents also show their efforts were spurred on by then-Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Sam Olens and then-Northeast Cobb Commissioner Tim Lee, who now is running to succeed Olens. Olens e-mailed County Manager David Hankerson on March 12 urging him to add a vote for an exploration of such a takeover to the March 23 commission agenda (his final meeting prior to his resignation to run for state attorney general). Said Olens: "I want the ED item on the agenda. Please get it done."
And it got done, the board voting 5-0 in favor of it.
THOSE PUSHING THE MERGER say it is needed to give Cobb "one voice" and one "point of contact" for economic development. Moreover, they say it would reverse what they say is a perception on the part of the Perdue administration that Cobb's economic development efforts are "slow, fragmented and ineffective, causing us to miss out on significant economic development projects that would grow the prosperity of Cobb citizens and our county," according to a March 12 report drafted by Connell on the proposed takeover.
Chamber officials say state economic development official Heidi Green of Marietta, a Perdue loyalist who may well be out of a job after Georgia elects a new governor, has told them the county's economic development department needs "to get its act together."
But since when did counties start outsourcing their work on the whim of a state bureaucrat? Especially a county as able and proud as Cobb? If anything, Atlanta should be taking suggestions from Cobb, not the other way around. If Cobb can operate first-rate police, fire, library and recreation services, there's no reason to think it can't run a first-class economic development shop, too. And if there is a problem with the current operation, the solution is to fix it - not to give it away. Can you imagine the commission deciding to outsource the fire department based on the remarks of a crabby state bureaucrat or political appointee?
CONNELL AND BEAVER et al argue - unconvincingly - that the county development department just isn't getting the job done. The best rejoinder to that is to take a look around. Cobb is hardly dying on the vine, even in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And County Manager Hankerson, who oversees the county's in-house economic development department, says he cannot name a single big prospect that has gotten away.
The suspicion is that not only does the Chamber want to amass all economic development authority under its roof, but that it also wants control of the county tax dollars now used to pay for that work. Beaver sent a Memorandum of Understanding to Garcia back on Sept. 9 proposing that the county would pay the Chamber up to $175,000 per year for taking over its ED department. But it's ridiculous to suggest that you could run a "world class" ED office for just $175,000. We suspect that figure is just "the camel's nose in the tent" in terms of what it would ultimately be asking of county taxpayers. Even the City of Marietta's economic development department has a budget well in excess of $200,000.
Chamber insiders with a vested interest in the proposed power grab are complaining that Gwinnett and Muscogee counties have better ED operations that we do and that we're losing business to them. Again, we are unaware of any lost development - and a "windshield survey" just about anywhere in Cobb would negate that argument.
MEANWHILE, THERE IS PLENTY of documentary evidence that the Chamber also envisions gaining control of the county's Visitors Bureau and its budget. But its handling of the Cobb Development Authority is hardly reason for confidence. You'll recall the Authority has allowed the Chamber to siphon off plenty of public money for its private use, such as $157,000 for furnishings at its offices, thousands on billboards and movie ads and $240,000 to subsidize the Chamber's money-losing magazine, which directly competes with a dozen private magazines in the county and likely helped put one of them - a Chamber member, at that! - out of business.
Hankerson, who knows economic development well after all these years, says he would never waste money on billboards or movie trailers for such a purpose - and ads that the county is trying to cut down on the number of billboards, not use tax dollars to increase their number.
And then there's leadership: The Cobb Chamber is a state of upheaval. Former President Bill Cooper was forced to retire last fall and Beaver is slated for ouster in November. No one knows who the new Chamber CEO will be, and he or she won't be here for months. Therefore, for the county government to outsource its ED operation at this point would amount to buying a pig in a poke. No ED office is better than the people who run it.
WE MENTIONED AT THE OUTSET that this proposal flunked the "smell test." Boy, does it ever. Not only did those who hatched it deliberately leave much of the Chamber board out of the loop, they deliberately did the same to most of the county commission and even Hankerson. The favored few (Olens and Lee) were aboard from the outset, but the others were given the "read it and weep" treatment.
One of the arguments for the power grab is that it would allow the Chamber to react "within 48 hours" to any ED proposal. That doesn't leave much time for government officials, the media or taxpayers to weigh in - or even be made aware - of such a proposal. And you can bet that is by design.
IF COBB COUNTY has an economic development problem, it's not very obvious. Few would say it is the biggest issue facing the county. And fewer still would say the answer is to hand over a chunk of the county budget to a private entity like the Chamber to stealthily run things, especially when the Chamber is on the verge of being temporarily rudderless. The Cobb Chamber has a long and illustrious history of touting Cobb and supporting business and stronger schools. It has played a vital role in the county's development into one of the Southeast's business Meccas, and hopefully will continue to do so. But in this case, it has overplayed its hand.